Note: I’ve added some additional thoughts to this post since I published it yesterday.
Previously on My Random Maunderings, I discussed the backlash experienced by Lynn Shepherd over her comments regarding J.K. Rowling. As promised, I’ve now finished Murder at Mansfield Park and here offer my thoughts on it.
The TL;DR Summary
I liked it. Murder at Mansfield Park is elegantly written, a clever mystery, and evocative of Jane Austen without coming off as an imitation. As a story it stands on its own, but may be even more enjoyable to Austen fans.
I declare it an unreserved thumbs up.
The Bill Likes to Hear Himself Talk Extended Discussion
When I started the novel, I went through a period of wondering if I needed to go back and read Mansfield Park itself again. There are a couple of Austen novels I revisit every few years, Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, but I’ve only read Mansfield Park once—long ago in high school. My memory of it is essentially nil, especially since it’s surely colored by my far more recent viewing of the BBC production of the novel starring Frances O’Connor.
That turned out to not be a problem. Shepherd ably sets up all we need to know and establishes her Janeite cred. For readers impatient with the more stately pace of fiction written prior to this era of “you have one sentence to get my attention or else,” the beginning may seem like a bit of a slog. I submit the slog is worth it, not the least because it helps anchor the story in its historical period. I love a breakneck contemporary thriller as much as the next person, but I also love to slow down and appreciate the richness of beautiful language and of life lived at a pace very different from our own.
I don’t read a Jane Austen novel for helicopter gun battles, and so with this, I’m not looking for Fanny Price, Undercover Commando. By giving the writing and the tone a chance to sink in, I quickly found myself immersed in a captivating Austen pastiche that was also a damn fine mystery. It’s clever and witty, and filled with rich, well-wrought characters. The plot is intricate and compelling. It’s Austen for people who can’t get enough Austen. In the end, I found it satisfying on multiple levels.
Yes, But Should You Read It?
There are writers I won’t read, no matter how good their work is. Orson Scott Card tops that list for his ardent activism in opposition to basic human rights for millions of people, but there are others whose offenses are far less egregious. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of me thinking a particular writer is an ass, and so I don’t want to give them my money or mindspace. But sometimes I keep reading writers I think are asses because their work is just so damn good. I’m a man twisted by paradox, I guess. Or a hypocrite. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Lynn Shepherd came to my attention not because of her work, but because of an opinion piece that managed to piss off about a billion people. I’ve seen it said that her goal all along was simply to get attention. If so, I guess it worked. I have no insight into her intentions, but I was aware of the possibility she was running a PR stunt when I decided to read one of her books. (Oh noes, I fell into her evil trap!) I’ve intentionally avoided any more commentary on the subject, both from others and from her (if she has commented beyond her words in this piece, I don’t know) so as not to color my perceptions any more than they already are.
As I said in my last post, I found her argument wrongheaded, and worthy of much full-throated criticism. I’m all in favor of kicking ass and taking names. I’m not opposed to swearing. Calling bullshit can—and often should—be an indelicate act, and I’m not here to tone troll. But I will say I think 1-starring her on Amazon is childish, and some of the vicious and personal attacks against her (which I am intentionally not linking to because fuck people who do that shit) are utterly and unequivocally wrong.
Ultimately, my feeling is this: Lynn Shepherd is a very talented writer who said a foolish thing, and then tepidly notpologized for it. Much of the criticism was warranted, I think, but the pettiness and vindictiveness of the personal attacks were not. In the end, I don’t regret reading Murder at Mansfield Park. But I do find myself wishing I’d learned about Lynn Shepherd some other way. I realize part of her point was about the difficulty writers have in finding an audience. I don’t miss the irony. And I also suspect many others won’t miss it either, even if they choose something else to read.
After finishing this post yesterday, I read a post by Greg Rucka which gave me food for thought. Greg’s post is a must-read on its own merits; he discusses in depth his reasons for openly and sincerely sharing his beliefs and values online, knowing full well that a lot of people will disagree with him—potentially at a cost in readership. While he doesn’t address Lynn Shepherd, in reading his post I came realize I’ve been unfair to her in an crucial way: I made assumptions about her motives and sincerity and in so doing implicity supported the narrative that she made her original argument in a duplicitous bid for attention.
I’m as cynical as anyone about things I see on the internet, and as a result my first instinct is to assume people are being underhanded. It’s not like I don’t have cause. Too much of what we see is a scam, or a set up, or a trick. “You’ll never believe what happens next…” has become a running gag for good reason. We share a video or a news story and go “Awwww,” or “WTF?” And then we find out the video was staged by an advertising firm or a political action committee, or the news report left out critical information which changes the meaning of what we’ve read. And, of course that critical information was left out. Because educating or informing isn’t the goal. Going viral is the goal. Getting attention. It doesn’t matter what we’re getting noticed for, just that we’re getting noticed.
And, I mean, hey, why not? Everybody’s doing it, amirite? Even me! Someone tweeted to me, “You’re just trying to ride the Lynn Shepherd controversy to get attention.” Presumably I’m trying to sell books. My own postings on this subject are thus oh so meta.
The problem with ascribing nefarious motives to Lynn Shepherd, or me, or anyone really, is it makes it easy to dismiss us without addressing the merits of what we’re trying to say. In the case of Lynn Shepherd, a lot of people did address her arguments on the merits, but a lot more just got caught up in the frenzy of the controversy itself. Suddenly she wasn’t someone making an argument, she was an attention-seeker who needed to be taught a lesson. That is ultimately de-humanizing, which makes it easier to go from “attention-seeker” to “jealous bitch” to a thing deserving threats and humiliation. Mob justice is especially fun when one can do it from the safety of one’s keyboard, with no danger of being stabbed by an errant pitchfork or set ablaze by a careless torch.
I’ll take this further and say this is especially easy when the target of ire is a woman. Charlie Stross opposes Jonathan Ross as Hugo ceremony host and he’s just a man expressing an opinion, but Seanan McGuire does the same thing and she’s a hysterical bitch leading a witch hunt. Rebecca Watson makes a mild request about how to interact with women and becomes subject to a multi-year campaign of abuse and threats, including rape and death threats, that shows no sign of letting up. I don’t know how much of the response to Lynn Shepherd is the depressingly typical misogyny experienced by women expressing an opinion on the internet and how much is driven by other factors, but I can’t help but be suspicious.
I self-identify as a feminist and work hard to be educated on feminist issues. But I’m also a man who grew up in a sexist society, and that means I have to be constantly on the lookout for unconscious bias in myself. Though I explicitly stated that I had no insight into Lynn Shepherd’s motives, I believe I unintentionally supported the attention-seeker narrative, and for that I’m sorry.
So what? Does that mean her sincerity innoculates her argument against criticism? Of course not. I still think her argument was wrong. But dismissing it as insincere doesn’t address her argument, it only serves to dismiss her as a human being. Perhaps some will see that as a subtle or even meaningless point, but to me, it’s fundamentally important.